In the article “Domestic violence is more than just physical abuse” published in Malay language newspaper Berita Harian on December 1, 2017, the executive director of local ulama (religious scholar) organisation Pergas, Mohd Yusri Yuhbi Mohd Yusof, looks at several aspects of abuse and neglect in Muslim families: financial, psychological and emotional, physical, sexual and social.
While the article mostly focuses on violence from husbands towards their wives, it does acknowledge that men can suffer abuse too. Each section starts out promisingly as the author draws from actual cases filed at the sharia court in Singapore. According to his analysis, some husbands do not give sufficient nafkah or maintenance to their wives (financial abuse); others verbally insult their wives with terms such as ‘whore’ (psychological or emotional abuse); some also impose their sexual preferences on their wives (sexual abuse); and some husbands do not allow their wives to leave the house except with their permission (social abuse).
Domestic violence has been on the radar of Singapore’s religious institutions this year. In July, the government organization, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (also known as MUIS), published a Facebook post denouncing domestic violence. The topic was also the focus of that week’s Friday sermon (standardized across all mosques in Singapore and prepared by MUIS).
While the intention to give a nuanced explanation of domestic violence is commendable, I couldn’t help but notice that there was also plenty of victim-blaming going on in this article. After detailing each as aspect of abuse, the author then gives “the other side” of the story. He then explains that there are also wives who ask for too much maintenance money from their husbands; those who, when verbally abused, then continue to sin by refusing sex with their husbands; wives who pretend to be too tired for months so that their poor husbands end up so terribly sex-deprived; and other wives who “disobey” their husbands because they need to leave the house without his permission in order to visit a sick parent, bring a critically-ill child to the doctor, or buy groceries.
In mainstream Islam in Singapore, husbands and wives are not considered equal partners in marriage. As I previously wrote on MWW, all Muslim pre-marriage counselling courses in Singapore exhort that the husband is the “leader” of the household, with the spiritual duty of educating and nurturing his wife (wives?) and children (among other responsibilities such as providing financially). This power imbalance is supported by virtually all religious institutions and teachers in Singapore, with no institution or scholar openly stating that there is gender equality in marriage or in Islam in general.
The author mentions several times that there must be communication, mutual understanding, and consideration of opinions and feelings of the wife. However, in a power dynamic where a husband has more power than a wife, discussion takes place only under specific conditions: when the husband says so.
From my perspective, the heart of the problem is the concept of “benevolent patriarchy,” as summarised by the following advice to potentially abusive husbands: “As husbands, we must use our power wisely and do not overstep the boundaries.” Husbands are merely advised to do good with their power. Wives are still considered sinners for refusing or going against abusive husbands, despite having less power.
The only penalty mentioned for abusive husbands happens on Judgment Day: “Malah, tidak hairan jika keengganan isteri melayan suaminya menjadi pertimbangan Allah nanti.” [It would not be a surprise if Allah took into consideration a wife’s reluctance to have sex with her husband.]
This article, while intending to highlight the nuances of domestic violence, in fact perpetuates the gendered ideas that lead to it in the first place. One is the concept, based on a hadith, that wives who refuse sex with their husbands are cursed until morning. Another is that husbands have the right to control their wives’ movements. Therefore, among its mixed messages, this article is in fact condoning ideas of superiority to Muslim men and values of submission and obedience to Muslim women.
What is missing in the religious narratives of domestic violence is that there are civil laws on domestic violence that apply to all citizens and residents in Singapore, including Muslims. Abused partners can seek recourse through several court orders available under civil law. One of these court orders can force the abusive partner to leave the house (even if they own it). Those who violate these court orders, if convicted, can end up paying fines up to S$5,000 or imprisonment up to a year, or both.
Family violence includes any of the following acts (as defined in section 64 of the Women’s Charter):
- wilfully or knowingly placing, or attempting to place, a family member in fear of hurt;
- causing hurt to a family member by such act which is known or ought to have been known would result in hurt;
- wrongfully confining or restraining a family member against his will; or
- causing continual harassment with intent to cause or knowing that it is likely to cause anguish to a family member.
Unfortunately, marital rape is still not considered a crime in Singapore, so Muslim women facing sexual abuse are not able to seek legal recourse. However, despite religious institutions indirectly creating and promoting different forms of domestic violence, Muslim women who are abused should not be taught their rights as wives, but as citizens.